On 14 January 2020, No Menu in Singapore hosted a dinner with wines from Vigneti Massa. Restaurant proprietor Osvaldo Forlino (left) and winemaker Walter Massa have known each other for a long time. No Menu imports Vigneti directly and is the only place in Singapore to buy or drink the wines.
The revival of timorasso – the ancient white variety linked to the Province of Alessandria in Piedmont – can be attributed to two men: Osvaldo Forlino and Walter Massa. Friends since they were young (their fathers were mayors of the village of Giarolo and Monleale respectively) the epiphany came to them on a trip to England more than 20 years ago.
‘We were in London where we knew some Italian sommeliers. Walter and I attended a tasting. We tasted French wines that were exported to the United Kingdom. The quality was so high. At the time, people in our region were making mostly Gavi from the cortese grape. I encouraged Walter to focus on timorasso,’ recalls Osvaldo Forlino over dinner at his house in Giarolo on Saturday 1 February 2020.
Forlino have spoken about timorasso to me before. He offers it at his family-owned, family-managed restaurant No Menu in Singapore. I first had it about five years ago. Vigneti Derthona Timorasso, the flagship wine, is absolutely disarming. Stone fruit and ripe melon, texture, suave freshness, persistence and length. Mind you, that’s just their entry level timorasso. There are also single-vineyard gems.
Giarolo is 860 metres above sea level. Driving from Piacenza, leaving the autostrada and into country roads, the elevation of the village only became apparent in the final leg of the journey. By the time I arrived in the Forlino home (more about this in a future story), a thick fog had enveloped Giarolo.
The next morning was magic.
Bright, sunny, blue skies with commercial jets leaving a trail of white in their flight path (Milan being just 100 km north). The valley below was covered by a bank of cloud. At first, I had thought there was a lake. When we drove down to Monleale – just 20 minutes away – the blue sky had disappeared altogether. Instead, the village was wrapped in fog.
Osvaldo Forlino and Walter Massa in the latter’s home in Monleale on 1 February 2020.
Renaissance of Timorasso
The renaissance of timorasso was not an overnight sensation.
The slow burn began with the 1987 harvest. Although a drawn out affair, thanks to what Walter Massa achieved for the variety, converts came on board with every passing – albeit scarce – bottle. As recently as 2009, there were just 50 hectares of vineyard between 22 producers (Walter Massa had 9 hectares then). Today, there are 132 growers and 45 producers. Total planting is only 170 hectares (15 of which belongs to Massa). To give some perspective, Saint-Julien Third Growth Chateau Lagrange alone has 118 hectares of vineyards.
In another person’s hands and mind, I don’t think timorasso would be where it is today. If, for example, Walter Massa had fermented and/or aged his wine in oak, timorasso would had died a strangled death. The wine world does not need more wood juice disguised as wine. Thirsty wine drinkers are demanding for fruit related to the variety/varieties from which a wine is produced. We are not interested to be told that the wine was fermented and aged in 50 or 100% new oak barrel. We want to taste fruit, not furniture.
In a bottle of Vigneti Massa, the quality of timorasso is overwhelming. The winery had started in 1879. Walter Massa represents the fourth-generation and is today helped by two nephews, sons of his sister Paola Massa. Twin brothers Filippo and Edoardo Alutto are just 21 years young. Edoardo continues his university studies but had already specialised in agriculture, viticulture and oenology at high school. He is assistant to his uncle in the vineyard and winery. As for Filippo, he is studying oenology in Alba but had majored in foreign languages in high school. Vignetti Massa is in three pairs of good hands.
“Montrachet of Timorasso”?
Remember how more than 20 years ago in London, Osvaldo Forlino and Walter Massa decided to resuscitate timorasso?
There is a postscript to the story.
In 2019, Osvaldo Forlino planted timorasso in Giarolo. The vineyard is tiny. Just 890 square metres. Not even 0.1 hectare. The vines are – for the moment – too young to produce wine. We have to wait another two or three years. It is, however, a rather special plot. At 700 metres above sea level, the vineyard is the highest timorasso ever planted. Time will tell if Osvaldo Forlino’s wine will become the “Montrachet of Timorasso”.
Walter Massa is acknowledged within and outside Monleale as the architect and high priest of timorasso. His wines are found in some of the top restaurants in the world, including New York.
Walter Massa • High Priest of Timorasso
‘When I started, I made timorasso the way everyone made Soave, Gavi or Chardonnay. At the time, I was producing 500, 600 bottles a year. Then, in 1995 I changed the style. I learned – and learn – as I go along. There is no formula. The wine is free. Like me.
‘The grapes are pressed whole bunch in a pneumatic bag press. Then – juice, skin, pips and stalk altogether – we bring the temperature down to 10° Celsius for 2 days. After 2 days of maceration, it is pressed very gently at 1.5 pressure. From 10,000 kg of juice, we get 70% or 7,000 litres of wine. The juice is transferred to a stainless steel tank and the marc is used to make grappa.
‘The temperature in the tank is 5° Celsius as I don’t want the fermentation to start yet. Following this settling, the clear juice will be transferred to another tank for the fermentation which is with natural yeast from the grape. The wine will be left to ferment in the tank for a year.
‘The following November, buttonage in the tank will take place every 15 days for half an hour. Until July. Then in September, the wine will be racked to another tank. Half the producers today follow this style.’
Walter Massa is acknowledged not only as someone who has revived timorasso but is also regarded as the foremost influencer of how the wine should be made. He has become the torchbearer of this ancient Piedmontese variety. His expertise is such that some producers engage him to make their wines. Massa can properly be described as the “High Priest of Timorasso”.
Vigneti Massa Costa del Vento 2016
Bright mid-gold. Aromatic. Ripe pineapples and stone fruit including apricot. Rich, succulent, textured, glycerol, intensity, round freshness and uber long finish. This is a single-vineyard wine which, literally, means “Coast of the Wind”.
Golden in colour. The nose of a Trockenbeerenauslese. Raisins, mangoes, apricots. Rich but with a dry finish (like Costa del Vento, 5 gm/l). In September and October 2013, there was, in the words of Walter Massa, “rain, rain and rain”. Rot was widespread. What was saved were overmatured berries. And this miraculous survivor. “Paziena” means patience.